Feature – Focus on healthcare: An improved NHS forces changes to healthcare cash plans

If you read nothing else, read this …

NHS reforms are prompting new benefits services offered by certain cash plan providers.

Rising costs for dental visits are forcing change.

Employers are increasingly adding healthcare cash plans to their benefits package in a bid to meet duty of care obligations to employees.

Article in full
National Health Service reforms and the rising cost of technology and treatments are keeping private medical insurers on their toes. Providers now need to be increasingly imaginative with what policies can offer in order to make premiums affordable.

But how do reforms, such as the shortening of waiting lists, improved access to GPs and the general encouragement of healthier lifestyles, affect the healthcare cash plan market?

Healthcare cash plans differ from private medical insurance (PMI) in that they pay out towards everyday health costs, such as visits to the dentist and optician. This is a benefit even healthy people can claim for.

Cash plan providers are attracting more attention from employers who see them not only as a more affordable option for keeping staff loyal than PMI, but see their role in keeping their employees in good shape.

Employers’ needs are influencing the cash plan market every bit as much as, if not more than, developments in the NHS, although cash plan providers are divided about which has the biggest impact.

Westfield Health believes the NHS’s role is the big motivator of change in its market. Jill Davies, executive director, says: “While dental and optical benefits are still top of the tree in terms of what people want from cash plans, we carried out research and found that they also wanted other benefits to reflect how the NHS is changing. For example, we have introduced a service where plan holders can have access to a consultation with a GP over the phone from wherever they are in the world.”

Just as Westfield has added some benefits, though, it has withdrawn others, such as help towards travel to NHS hospitals, the cost of which became “unsustainable”. The number of nights it pays for an inpatient stay has also reduced from 50 to 30 nights a year. “When such plans were introduced, it was not unusual for people to stay in hospital for weeks but nowadays they whisk you in and out so fast patients they are unlikely to need it. But we have increased the cash benefit by 10%,” says Davies.

Reflecting the government’s initiative to encourage more individual responsibility for keeping fit, some providers have also added a discount on gym membership and created web services offering health information.

At Cardif Pinnacle, marketing manager Suzanne Murray believes its offering aims to fill the gaps in the NHS service such as being able to claim towards the cost of a private consultant.

“People can speed up their diagnosis and move more quickly to the NHS treatment stage. It has also become harder to find an NHS dentist and even if you do have one there are still fees to pay. We pay back between 50% and 75% of the bill up to the limit of the policy, whether they go to an NHS or private dentist,” she says.

But while the whims of the NHS do shape the strategies of some providers, others believe individual and corporate customers have more influence. Suzanne Clarkson, head of corporate marketing at HSA, says: “Cash plans can be useful for employers which increasingly need to meet their duty of care for their employees and want to reduce absence and increase productivity.”

Stuart Wright, cash plan specialist at Bupa, adds: “We change our products to reflect what individuals and companies want. We recently raised the benefit on dental costs from 50% to 100%, up to their individual limit. Dental costs are something customers are highly concerned about whether NHS or private.”